It began in 1974 with some chives. How The Herbfarm evolved from a mom-and-pop Fall City farm to a dining destination of national renown is a saga of family loyalty, astute marketing and a passion for food and wine. It encompasses destruction by fire in 1997 and resurrection on the grounds of Willows Lodge in Woodinville, The Herbfarm’s home since 2001. That same year, The Seattle Times gave the restaurant four stars.
It’s a story that co-owner Carrie Van Dyck tells as well now as she did when I last heard it in 1999. Costumed, as are all the servers, like a Victorian housemaid in a long black dress with a white bib apron, she repeats it four nights a week during her pre-dinner garden tour.
With a glass of cucumber and camomile punch in hand, I followed the crowd along garden paths paved with hazelnut shells. Van Dyck tossed us flowers and herbs to taste and introduced their potbellied recyclers — two pigs named Basil and Borage.
Once everyone is seated in an intimate dining room festooned with fripperies and furbelows, there’s a little more horn-tooting by Van Dyck’s husband and co-owner, Ron Zimmerman, whose parents had the idea to sell their surplus chives.
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I was by turns bewitched, bothered and bemused by my evening at The Herbfarm. When I ate here last, Jerry Traunfeld was in the middle of his 17-year tenure as executive chef. Two head chefs have come and gone since Traunfeld left in 2007 to open Capitol Hill’s Poppy. Currently in the role is talented, 28-year-old Johnson & Wales grad Chris Weber. Born the same month and year, May 1986, The Herbfarm became a restaurant, he started as a line cook six years ago.
Each month a new nine-course menu builds on a different theme. “The Great Basil Banquet” runs through August, but July’s “Nine Songs of Summer” celebrated Washington state. The opening number was a simple stunner: a bouquet of infant vegetables and blossoms, finely diced ham and a bite of omelet rolled to look like a flower petal, adjacent to a pool of smoky vegetable broth. Egg, pigs and produce all came from the restaurant’s nearby farm. The herb-garnished sparkling wine, 2010 Argyle Brut, was from Oregon.
An interlude followed in which Weber detailed the menu, and head sommelier Joey Lopaka described the six wine pairings. Then Zimmerman called out the entire staff, two dozen strong, for an early bow in front of the red-velvet curtain temporarily shielding the kitchen.
Thus it was nearly 8 p.m. before the second course arrived. A sheet of seaweed pasta, strewn with pickled clams and oysters, blue borage blooms and a foam of lemon thyme cleverly evoked a San Juan cove. But the ensemble tasted excessively bitter, the pasta obscuring a treasure beneath: cucumber-studded albacore tartare.
Lavender-smoked king salmon from Neah Bay took to a buttery saffron and garlic sauce even better than a fish takes to water. The battered and deep-fried new potato with it perched on a pedestal of mashed Nash’s Organic Produce carrots from Sequim.
Einkorn nodded to the Methow Valley. The ancient, farro-like wheat grain, crunchy with crumbled chicken skin, acquired a deeply earthy character from leeks, herbs and wild mushrooms — a fat morel stuffed with chicken sausage and several tiny “fog drip” chanterelles.
Lamb prepared two-ways — toothpick-like ribs, sticky with a Worcestershire glaze, and rosy slices from a tiny leg — saluted Washington’s Eastern slope. Coupled with a dark red grilled tomato and spicy tomato jam, the dish suggested haute barbecue. Its partner was the elegant 2008 DenHoed Marie’s View Meritage.
I nursed that glass of red wine through the fanciful cheese course — three perfect cheeses with three different herbs and three types of currants — which was preceded by the upselling of rare after-dinner sips. The Herbfarm’s wine cellar is impressive but with five wine experts working the floor touting it could be done in a classier way, perhaps table by table.
The huckstering bothered me, given the meal’s steep package price. Not just the dangling of additional wines but the promotion of upcoming dinners and of rooms at Willows Lodge. I appreciated the food and wine context all the speechifying provided, but not the commercials.
Desserts were weak, but I enjoyed the evening right down to the crusty French rolls, cultured butter and madrone bark tea. If I had my way, I’d edit the table setting. I’d lose the crocheted doilies and the ceramic cabbage-leaf charger that makes plates wobble. I’d include proper soup and sauce spoons among the gleaming silverware. But I’m a traditionalist at heart, pleased that a place like The Herbfarm perseveres.
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Reach her at email@example.com.